It was a term coined by a New York attorney who filed a class-action lawsuit against the makers of Ambien, a blockbuster sleep drug. The attorney in question, Susan Chana Lask, spoke to 300 people who reported strange, “zombie” behaviors from Ambien, according to a Newsweek report.
People were eating buttered cigarettes with eggs, complete with the shells, according to one HuffPost article. A 55-year-old woman told Newsweek she went on Ambien-influenced eating binges.
She “woke to find half-empty boxes of rice or open bags of candy in the kitchen — evidence of nocturnal binges she didn’t remember,” says the Newsweek article.
Two key events highlighted the real dangers of the drug. Former Rhode Island congressman Patrick Kennedy blamed Ambien for causing him to crash his car near the U.S. Capitol in 2006. In March 2009, 45-year-old Robert Stewart barged into a North Carolina nursing home and opened fire, killing eight people.
Stewart’s defense attorneys said Ambien caused him to kill those people. Instead of the death penalty, he got sentenced to 142 to 179 years in prison on eight counts of second-degree murder.
As recently as 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued strict new warnings about Ambien and Lunesta, another popular prescription sleep medicine. The regulatory body stated the use of such drugs could lead to catastrophic injuries or deaths, states this Washington Post report.
That’s just one aspect of a multitude of harmful effects that come from Ambien use, mainly when longtime users go through withdrawal. Learn about what to expect from Ambien withdrawal and available treatment solutions.
What is Ambien?
Ambien, the brand name for zolpidem, is prescribed to treat insomnia. The central nervous system (CNS) depressant gained FDA approval in 1992.
Ambien is a sedative-hypnotic medication that slows down brain activity, which allows for sleep.
Ambien is available as a tablet in immediate (zolpidem tartrate) and extended-release formulations (Ambien CR).
Upon initial dose, women should take 5 milligrams (mg) and men 5 or 10 mg, once a night and immediately before bedtime, according to Drugs.com.
The total dose amount for immediate-release medication should not exceed 10 mg.
For the extended-release (Ambien CR), the total dose should not exceed 12.5 mg once daily before bedtime. The recommended initial dose for women is 6.25 mg. For men, the initial dose amount should be 6.25 or 12.5 mg.
Ambien Abuse Potential
Ambien is only intended for short-term use and at the lowest possible dose. Ambien can be habit-forming, hence its designation as a Schedule IV drug by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Even though the DEA defines Ambien as a drug “with a low potential for abuse and low risk of dependence,” it is capable of inducing dependence and addiction. Plus, it is not unusual for people to become Ambien-dependent in a couple of weeks.
Ambien Withdrawal Symptoms
When used as directed, Ambien withdrawal symptoms rarely occur in people who take it as directed. People who abuse it are prone to withdrawal symptoms when they abruptly stop taking it.
People who suddenly stop taking Ambien can also suffer from seizures.
Ambien withdrawal symptoms manifest as physical and psychological effects. According to Verywell Mind, possible withdrawal symptoms include:
- Fast heart rate or racing pulse
- Aches and pains
- Nausea or vomiting
- Hand tremors
- Panic Attacks
Ambien Withdrawal Factors
Not every withdrawal timetable is the same. Several factors influence how and when people experience Ambien withdrawal. Those factors include:
- Amount of Ambien used. A user who takes Ambien at higher doses after becoming tolerant will experience more severe withdrawal symptoms.
- Length of use. People who use Ambien beyond the recommended length of time may experience a more intense and lengthier withdrawal period.
- Type of Ambien use. Those who take the extended-release version of Ambien tend to have more significant withdrawal symptoms.
- Taking Ambien with other substances. Abusing Ambien with alcohol or other drugs can result in severe withdrawal symptoms when a person stops using all substances.
- Genetic/biological profile. Addiction history, age, gender, race, and metabolism can all influence how withdrawal symptoms show up.
Ambien Withdrawal Timeline
The following is a general Ambien withdrawal timeline:
First 24-48 Hours
The first symptoms of withdrawal typically occur within a 24- to 48-hour span for abnormal use. For people who take Ambien in smaller doses, symptoms can begin in a few days. Rebound insomnia, confusion, and mood swings tend to occur during this period.
This is the peak period for Ambien withdrawal symptoms to occur. Those symptoms include depression, mood swings, nausea, vomiting, heightened anxiety, and stomach cramps.
Day 6 to 2 weeks
During this period, the physical symptoms will begin to lessen and go away completely. Psychological symptoms like cravings, depression, anxiety, and insomnia can last beyond the two-week time frame.
Memory Loss Warning
One of the most significant effects of Ambien is its ability to cause memory loss. The FDA warned that a patient could wake up in the middle of sleep and conduct activities without being fully aware of them.
Users have reported waking up from Ambien without recalling where or what they did the morning after. They have reported participating in dangerous, life-threatening activities like sleepwalking, sleep-talking, sleep-driving (!!!), and having sex, and other abnormal behaviors without remembering them.
How Professional Treatment Can Help You
Attempting to do a cold-turkey detox from Ambien is not recommended. A professional treatment program will let you taper off Ambien in a supervised setting — the best, most effective means in breaking the grip of this drug.
A professional treatment program starts with medical detox.
In detox, a licensed and experienced medical staff tapers you off Ambien and treats your withdrawal symptoms.
After detox, you could be recommended for residential or outpatient treatment, depending on the severity of your Ambien abuse or addiction.
Severe cases and situations where Ambien is abused with other substances may require residential treatment. A residential program allows you to receive comprehensive, full-time therapy and counseling for a period of 30 to 60 days.
For milder cases, outpatient treatment is recommended.
An outpatient program allows clients to participate in comprehensive therapy and counseling but on a part-time basis.
Once treatment is completed, you can get connected to a recovery group through relapse prevention.
These communities are essential because they provide support, mentoring, and inspiration as you navigate life as a newly sober individual.